05/02/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Our Elders Deserve Better

By Alexander Justice Moore
Director of Development & Communications

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post's Arthur Delany crafted a wrenching narrative of sequestration striking senior citizens through its painful cuts to the Meals on Wheels system. That up to four million meals have been taken from our elders by way of the avoidable, self-inflicted crisis of the sequester is appalling--but the suffering caused by these cuts offers only a small sampling of what will come as America's aging crisis approaches. By 2030, this country's population of older adults will have doubled in size since 2000, to 72.1 million people. Although allowing these people to age with dignity is hardly an example of 'wasteful' spending, the onset of American austerity should inspire us all to seek new, cost-effective solutions.

Recently, a Brown University study found that feeding senior citizens in their homes reduces the need for nursing homes. More meals, less long-term care. That's a good start. But at DC Central Kitchen, we know that 'more meals' is never a solution by itself. All too often, organizations devoting to fighting hunger focus on filling the stomach, to the exclusion of nourishing the whole person. Stomachs can only be full for so long before they need another meal. Then those clients are back again, day after day, rendered dependent until the funding dries up. On an infinite timeline, this is not a pretty picture.

There are better ways to nourish and empower our elders. At DC Central Kitchen, we're testing a few of them, with powerful results.

One way involves rethinking what we actually feed them. Dusty smatterings of canned food belong in our basements, not the bodies of older adults. We need to rebuild our food systems around the sorts of fresh, wholesome items that can be efficiently aggregated, prepared, and shared with senior citizens. It's not news that America wastes incredible quantities of food. Wasting 52% of our fresh fruits and vegetables, however, is not just unseemly--it's incredibly stupid. These are our best weapons in promoting long-term senior health, but most every crooked carrot, off-color pepper, or oversized yam is left to rot in the field. At DC Central Kitchen, we recover more than 300,000 pounds of unwanted produce each year and pay farmers fair prices for items they could not otherwise sell. Our model generates new income for them and brings bumper crops of dimpled and off-color fruits and vegetables into our urban kitchen. This fresh produce infuses our nutritious, economical meals and represents an investment in the long-term health of our city's seniors. It works in Washington, DC. It can work just about anywhere.

Another way involves getting seniors out of their homes to lead lives with meaning. "Retired" should not be synonymous with "idle." People with decades of professional and personal experience have much to offer, especially when sharing their knowledge with young people eager to solve long-standing problems. DCCK's national arm, The Campus Kitchens Project, is a student-led initiative that empowers young people to start their own community kitchens in college dining halls and high school cafeterias, turning leftovers into real meals for those in need. CKP is a pioneer in the field of intergenerational service, expressly recruiting senior citizens to support these efforts. Seniors then impart what they know to a new generation of civic leaders while re-connecting with their community. If we are going to make a big deal out of feeding senior citizens--and we should--let us make sure we are fueling them for a greater purpose.

Developing the food systems and community service infrastructure necessary to carry out these changes will be costly in the short term. We should not see these activities as expenses, but as investments. As it stands today, retirement will look very different for people who are under 30, like me. It may disappear entirely. If we want it to be around for us, we need to change what it looks like today. By all means, let us defend Meals on Wheels to fight short-term hunger and reduce long-term care costs. And let us drive down our health costs further with preventative, inclusive measures that allow senior citizens to be healthier, more active, and more engaged as they age. The sequester is not the real villain here. It's a popular definition of 'wasteful' that seemingly applies only to money spent on the most vulnerable among us--not the fresh produce and productive minds our country casts aside each day.